Spying on your kids – or the time when Mom-101 becomes Mom-007

Right now I have little kids. I have yet to worry about things like texting (oy), sexting (eek), and Chat Roulette (kill me now). But I am already thinking a lot about trust. And privacy. And how the two don’t always jibe.

Starting now, I tell my kids that they can ask me any question however silly or embarrassing or incriminating. I think that’s an essential first step. But let’s be honest–their questions now are about whether your eyes change color if you stare at something too long, or how the first baby was born, or why Daddy hates the Dallas Cowboys. These are the good old days.

To this day, the greatest stumbling block in my rocky, early teenage-years relationship with my mother was discovering she had read my diary in seventh grade. (I think what she got out of it was that I was in love with some short boy, we made out after school one day, and I had horribly low self-esteem. A normal 13 year-old! Surprise!) I swore I would never do that to my own kid.

And now, here I am with my own daughters, hoping I can make good on that promise. Because I also know that the stakes are so much higher for kids in this World 2.0 that we’re living in.

Again: sexting.


So here’s something cool.

In my spare time (generally between 3 and 4 AM although in this case, I made an exception) I taped a series of short webisodes for iVillage called The Conversation Thread. My fellow featured panelists include iVillage chief correspondent Kelly Wallace, comedienne Judy Gold, and iVillage blogger Brandi Jeter.

You can tell when we taped it based on the Charlie Sheen references.

(Kelly and I are twinsies.)

It’s a fast, fun discussion about hot topics including whether parenting makes you happy, dealing with kids who talk back, and whether it’s okay to spy on your kids.  Please watch it and let me know what you think. If it’s nice.

I have to say, if I got one do-over, it would be a cleaner response to the spying question. (Speaking in soundbytes is hard!) I joked about telling my kids upfront that I have a right to snoop on them, so really, it’s not actually spying if they’re in on it. But I’m not so sure that that’s the right answer.

I think the right answer is that I have no freaking idea what I will do. Same as any other question that comes up about a hypothetical person that my children may or may not be in 5 or 10 years.

If I have children who are deserving of my trust, then they will receive it.

That seems like the best I can promise.

I also would like to say that I have the right to change my mind on that and totally spy on my kids if I am guaranteed to have one of those James Bond Aston Martins with front-firing rockets and an OCTOPUSSY plate. Which will go over huge in Brooklyn.

What do you think about the discussion? Do you agree with Judy’s idea that very little is off limits when it comes to keeping an eye out for your kids?


19 thoughts on “Spying on your kids – or the time when Mom-101 becomes Mom-007”

  1. My deal with my ten year old is that she can have e-mail and AIM and she can text, but I get to monitor it. I'm glad I do it because last week, a girl in her class sent her an invective laden e-mail and we were able to handle it together. I guess that's not really spying if she knows about it, though.

    I will definitely spy on my kids on the internet because there is soooooo much scary stuff out there. Lots of crazy people and mean girls. Kids are exposed to so much more than we were at their age, and I want to know what they are running into so I can discuss it with them and guide them.

    I always said I'd never spy–but I think we have to these days, or completely ban the internet from our homes.

  2. I have a 13 yo daughter, she has a boyfriend, he wants to make out with her. How do I know? I told her that any electronics were subject to my occasional perusal. This includes computers, phones, etc. We have had a lot of open discussions about everything, sex, boys, pot, you name it. She really does tell me a lot, I don't look at her phone often, but she knew when she was given the phone that I had the right to go through her messages. I wouldn't read a diary or listen in on a phone call. I got the idea from The Online Mom, if you establish the boundaries early, they don't feel invaded.
    I found out she did indeed get her first kiss, because she told me. And this is just the beginning, I have no idea what's going to happen when it becomes more than a kiss. Lord help me.

  3. It is a total mind warp when you have a one year old but work with sixteen year old every day. Sometimes I feel like every day I have to think about what will happen when my daughter becomes a teen. This much I do know. I will be monitoring her online activity and her text messages. It is too dangerous to her not to. I don't mean predators I mean posting something stupid that has permanent consequences. My students simply do not understand permanent consequences of any kind. Their brain literally cannot fathom it (the science is pretty compelling). And yet, they are dealing with this technology that allows them to do something in thirty seconds that they may have to answer for in thirty years. It is scary and I have seen too many otherwise really good kids make a few stupid mistakes because texting and facebook are constantly available.

  4. This is such a hard subject because it seems so new. Maybe not the issues as much, but the digital footprint our kids will leave behind as they make their mistakes. That's surely something we didn't have to deal with when we were writing our most private thoughts in paper journals with their flimsy locks that only our mothers really saw.

  5. (deleted prev. comment due to typo)
    With boys 11 and 13, we are delving into this. The older one has an email account, but I have the password and the right to check it. Same with his phone and texts. As parents we talk a tough line- our house, our stuff, our rules; if you don't like it, get emancipated when you are 16 and go support yourself.

    In reality, we're not that harsh and the boys know they have it pretty good, even if they don't have all the iphones/ipads/Xbox360s and Playstation3 as their friends supposedly do.

    I've only checked in on his account once or twice. I suppose, though, Facebook will be coming soon (and high school!) and then we will be walking a trickier line.

    One friend of mine let her 13 y.o. get a Facebook account, but she created and holds the password, so he can't sign in without her. Interesting.

    I can't imagine doing that, but I'll make sure he “friends” me and I will keep his password around “just in case”, which really could mean anything from checking up on him to being able to check in with his friends if he goes missing or something freaky/scary happens.

    And I agree, if you tell them it might happen, it's not really spying.

  6. I think you were absolutely on the right track with your answer, Liz, even if it didn't feel “sound-bite-y” enough to you. 🙂 Like others here have said, our policy is that if you have email/chat/whatever, we have the password and the right to monitor it at any time. I have explained—and then demonstrated, when we ran into a problem—that as long as I had no reason to suspect a problem, I wouldn't snoop. But OH DEAR, recently we had a situation where a trust was broken and you bet I went and checked up on said child EVERYWHERE, discovering more problems, and THEN I called her friends parents to let them know what I found, too, and then their kids got in trouble as well.

    Was my kid furious? Yep. Was she surprised? Nope. We went over it again: Earn my trust, I have no reason to snoop. Break the trust, you get no privacy, sorry. That's just how it is.

    Honestly, my kid was in over her head. So here's the money shot: She later admitted she was glad I caught her and intervened, as it stopped the entire cycle of bad behavior among her friends. I reminded her that all of this happens so that once she's 18 and on her own, she knows how to take care of herself. But my job right now is to police her until she can do it herself.

    I have no regrets about “snooping.” It's clearly explained, and it's my job as her parent. I would never read her diary, but writing in her diary isn't going to get her in trouble online. 😉

  7. First off– I think you did very well in this segment– you seemed warm, thoughtful, friendly, but (in contrast to the lady to your left) not like you were forcing your witticisms into the discussion (sorry, lady on left! You're a comedian– I understand your pressures are different.)I wasn't struck by any excessive wordiness on your part, either.

    As for spying and privacy– glh! It seems this is the sort of thing you work out as you go. In my experience, no good ever comes out of reading someone's diary– people usually write that sort of private missive just to vent, and taking those words as heart's truths is inevitably going to lead to a skewed image of the writer. Plus, how is that not going to feel like a violation? Whereas keeping tabs on a son's Facebook page is different– if he's not aware that sort of thing is public, he oughtta learn– and fast.

    And I think it's reasonable to ask questions and expect honest answers, to watch interactions with friends, to talk to teachers, and to let a kid know that sharing a roof with his parents means that certain parts of his life will be subject to scrutiny, and that trust is earned.

    But yeah, the whole deal makes me uncomfortable, and I can't say I'm looking forward to establishing and enforcing those boundaries.

  8. You moms of tweens and teens bring up so many amazing points. I'm glad to hear my instinct on warning them about spying seems like an okay one.

    And Roo I think you make an excellent point about the difference between a public-ish forum like Facebook and a private diary. But I still would like my kids to feel they have a place of their own. No Grownups Allowed, and all.

  9. First, I'll admit that I didn't watch the clip.

    But, I'll answer the question.

    My mother read my yearbook signatures in 8th grade after she asked if she could see it, and I said “no” and hid it behind some pillows on my bed. I was livid. All she learned is that a couple of my friends were swearing already.

    Like you said, everything is different now, and stupid mistakes made while a tween/teen don't go away and aren't forgotten if the mistake is made online or using another digital medium.

    So, our 15yo has been told she has no expectation of privacy in our house other than when bathing and dressing. She has to keep her cell in the kitchen to recharge from 9pm on every night, and we check it sometimes. We know her FB and gmail passwords. Sometimes I listen to her sides of phone calls (which isn't hard when I work from the kitchen table every night, directly below her room).

    I won't write here everything we've been able to thwart, remedy, or fix as a result of this espionage, but trust me: she will be glad we did it in a few years when she's applying for colleges, grad school, jobs, etc. I don't care if she's irritated now if it saves her a ton of misery that could follow her for the rest of her life. Frankly, she's too young and insecure at 15 to react the right way to some of the boys her age who don't have parents who intervene or give a damn about what they do online at night.

    She'll have plenty of opportunity to fuck it all up when she goes off to college if that's really what she wants to do. While she lives in our house, however, and especially while she shares a house with 2 self-employed persons who are very much “out there” online and in the local community with small businesses, this is how it's going to be.

  10. Also- do you know how subjectively defined child pornography is? A tween in her bra could qualify. Your son gets that from some girl, on your cell plan, on a device that rests in your house, and the girl's parents get pissed off and try to make an example of your son…get the picture? Especially bad if you're a fiduciary who can lose his license to practice with one mishap with the law.

  11. My mom spied on me in high school because she thought I was on drugs (I wasn't, but I was experiencing a lot of mental trauma at the time). When she told me about it years later, I didn't fault her, since that was a pretty rough period in our lives. I'm not sure what my reaction would have been in the short term.

    It all seems so much scarier these days, with texting and internet, that I think it's completely fair to spy. I'd preface the snooping with letting my kids know that if they put it out on the web for everyone else to see, I get to look at it too. I like the ideas mentioned above about all electronic equipment being subject to search. Let them know ahead of time, and your kids might think twice about what they put on the web.

  12. My sister works in the mental health field and has told me that among the intakes she does with teens, 10 out of 12 teens are hospitalized with depression and/or mental health issues that stem from Facebook, texting and the internet. You bet my behind that all of this will be monitored by my husband and I when our two kiddos get older. It scares the living crap out of me.

  13. I can't help but think kids make that “place of their own … no grownups allowed.” We don't allow them to have it, they just take it. When once they hid their journals now they'll change their passwords or take on assumed names. It's part of growing up forging their own identities. Deception is almost necessary.

    Similarly, I think investigating your children when that deception becomes destructive is a kind of normal rite of parenthood.

  14. Interesting discussion–well structured!

    I have no children, but if I did, I would (I should hope) be very careful as to what extent I'd keep tabs on them.

    The reason is this: Children–especially teenagers–need assurance that they can trust their parents.

    If they don't have that assurance, they will be more likely to engage in irresponsible, even reckless behavior–and more likely to lie, and keep secrets they shouldn't keep.

    Cautious, yet trustworthy parents do more good than harm. But prying, untrustworthy parents do more harm than good.

  15. I have a 13 year old and 2 year. My wife and I are 007 and 008 all the time we have the urge to know what they are up to.


  16. My parents set us up with a relative they could trust. From a young age, we were encouraged to confide in that relative and when we were older, we did. The relative reported back to my parents and my parents then knew what to look for so that they could unearth the dirt they needed to talk to us themselves about things. And now that we're older, I still confide in that relative, but now I know they keep their lips sealed. I don't resent my parents or the relative for what they did – you do what you have to do to keep your kids safe.

    Was it right? Was it ethical? Was it perfect? I don't know. But it worked like a charm.

  17. I have six kids and my oldest two graduate from high school today. I am really bad at being a “Mom-007”. I read emails, text and listen in on conversations. I feel that I have to do this though. It is MY responsibility to make sure that my kids grow up with standards and morels and if I do not know that they are slipping in an area then how can I help them. I feel no guilt in this. 🙂

    Lora – The Potty Training Queen

  18. My parents never spied on me (that I know of). It's a lot easier to keep an invisible eye out these days with facebook and parental controls and what not.

  19. To spy or not to spy…

    My daughter is 9, and I’m still officially “on the fence” about whether or not I will or will not get all 007 on her in the coming years. But the more comments I read from moms of tweens and teens who who do choose to don the spy hat (and what they discover), the more convinced I become that eventually it will become an evil necessity.

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